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Cincinnati's Union Baptist Cemetery Inspiration For National Network

Tana Weingartner
Union Baptist Cemetery is the inspiration for legislation that would create a network of African American burial grounds.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is introducing legislation in the Senate that would create a national network of African American burial grounds with a goal of helping fund maintenance and preservation efforts.

Cincinnati's oldest Baptist African American cemetery, Union Baptist Cemetery on Cleves-Warsaw Road, is the inspiration. It's the final resting place for 120 free black men who served as soldiers during the Civil War; Jennie Davis Porter, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati; and perhaps most famously, Powhaten Beaty, who was born into slavery, fought in the Civil War, and was awarded the highest honor a soldier can attain, the Medal of Honor.

"It's so important that we restore this place where Powhatan Beaty and Dr. Jennie Davis Porter and so many other great black Ohioans are laid to rest, so that it can be appreciated for the historic place it is," Brown says.

He's working with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on the legislation. A companion bill is working its way through the House of Representatives.

The African American Burial Grounds Network Act would create a voluntary, nationwide database of African American cemeteries administered by the National Park Service, and provide opportunities for grants and assistance with research and preservation.

Brown says "this is a relatively small amount of money" - though he couldn't put a price tag on it - and funding sources are still being identified.

"We want to get the legislation created and get it set up in a way that we find out how many of these cemeteries there are around the country - we don't even know that at this point - and then assess what we'll need and we hope to fund it well, if not completely."

Brown visited Union Baptist Cemetery this summer following media reports about damage and vandalism. He says other cemeteries face similar issues.

"A lot of these cemeteries, frankly because of racism, have had vandalism committed against them. We want to find all of that out as we move forward."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The Rev. Orlando Yates is flanked by Sen. Sherrod Brown and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley as he speaks about the importance of preserving African American cemeteries.

Angelita Jones is chair of the board of trustees for Union Baptist Church, which maintains the cemetery. She's one of the chief advocates, along with the Rev. Orlando Yates, for its preservation.

Yates spoke Tuesday during Brown's visit announcing the Senate legislation.

"Clearly there is a tremendous need for a unified, nationwide effort to help repair, preserve and restore these sacred burial grounds which are indeed an integral component of the heritage of our great nation, the United States of America," Yates says.

Yates cites a well-known passage from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, A Time for Everything.

"There is a time to keep silent and there's a time to speak," he told those gathered in the cold, snowy cemetery Tuesday. "Indeed, today, this is the time. This issue, this cause, this bill cries out for all of us to now speak out in support of its passage in the United States Senate and the signing into law by the president."

Earlier this year, Hamilton County Commission President Denise Driehaus announced a $10,000 commitment from the Hamilton County Veterans Service Commission for the cemetery. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley Tuesday said City Council is expected to pass a resolution setting aside $5,000 for the restoration.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.